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Picking Up On The Cues

May 12, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Communication necessarily involves empathy. To listen requires a silencing of the self. However, to understand requires tools contained within the self. This opens up a paradox: how to listen and translate at the same time. Non-verbal communication often enhances face-to-face interactions. Literature gives any number of wonderful scenes enhanced by non-verbal cues. As I think about and develop an understanding of non-verbal communication for today's post, I am going to focus on three works. First, a quote by Plutarch regarding Caius Gracchus, then a scene from Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov and, finally, a scene from the 2016 film Arrival.

Plutarch spends quite a bit of time discussing communication in the Lives of Noble Grecians and Romans. He claims that a real understanding of character comes not through actions alone, but through the way a man uses words, interacts with others and his style of living. Plutarch often notes that temperance is a trait common to many of these great men, but what temperance is, remains to be seen. Plutarch indicates that abstaining from excess – in all aspects of one's life – is a necessary attribute of temperance. This is proven through the detail provided regarding style of food, sleep, and dress, among other things. But most importantly, temperance can be shown in a man's speech and public behavior. Plutarch's favorite exchanges involve senators who spoke their minds but held their tempers.

Plutarch's frustration with political corruption is apparent when he notes that senators have become afraid to vote according to their conscience. He gives exceeding praise, however, to those men who risk their support by offering thoughtful discussion of a new idea. In the following long quote, Plutarch describes the scene of the senate, brimming with corruption. Caius Gracchus, after having witnessed his brother's brutal death by senators in the senate chamber, proceeded to win a popular vote. He too decided to support the populace and not necessarily the wealthy senators. His action speaks loudly.

Plutarch writes: “While he was arguing for the ratification of this law, his behavior was observed to show in many respects unusual earnestness, and whereas other popular leaders had always hitherto, when speaking, turned their faces towards the senate house, and the place called the comitium, he, on the contrary, was the first man that in his harangue to the people turned himself the other way, towards them, and continued after that time to do so. An insignificant movement and change of posture, yet it marked no small revolution in state affairs, the conversion, in a manner, of the whole government from an aristocracy to a democracy, his action intimating that public speakers should address themselves to the people, not the senate.” In this single, dramatic action, Caius demonstrates the way in which speech succeeds better when directed at the party one wishes to address, regardless of prior custom. In other words, body language is a form of presence, a form of signification that transfers audibly.

Dostoevsky describes an extremely awkward moment in Brothers Karamazov in which the action of bowing can be seen as a form of speech. Upon Alyosha's entrance into the monastery, his family meets with Zosima, the elder. Generally, an elder warrants great respect. In this case, however, Alyosha's family is unable (or unwilling) to demonstrate appropriate respect. Whether or not they believe in a higher order (though they all verbally claim to) does not matter. What matters is Dostoevsky's description of their awkward introduction, which speaks volumes.

Dostoevsky writes: “The elder Zosima came out accompanied by a novice and Alyosha. The hieromonks rose and greeted him with a very deep bow, touching the ground with their fingers, and, having received his blessing, kissed his hand. When he had blessed them, the elder returned the same deep bow to each of them, touching the ground with his fingers, and asked a blessing of each of them for himself. The whole ceremony was performed very seriously, not at all like some everyday ritual, but almost with a certain feeling. To Miusov, however, it all seemed done with deliberate suggestion. He stood in front of all his fellow visitors. He ought – and he had even pondered it the previous evening – despite all his ideas, just out of simple courtesy (since it was customary there), to come up and receive the elder's blessing, at least receive his blessing, even if he did not kiss his hand. But now, seeing all this bowing and kissing of the hieromonks, he instantly changed his mind: gravely and with dignity he made a rather deep bow, by worldly standards, and went over to a chair. Fyodor Pavlovich did exactly the same, this time, like an ape, mimicking Miusov perfectly. Ivan Fyodorovich bowed with great dignity and propriety, but he, too, kept his hands at his sides, while Kalganov was so nonplussed that he did not bow at all. The elder let fall the hand he had raised for the blessing and, bowing to them once more, invited them all to sit down. The blood rushed to Alyosha's cheeks; he was ashamed.” Custom has been cast aside on a whim, or perhaps an emotion. Either way, Miusov's very quick change of mind affects the entire room, who follows his example. All of this seems to be driven by an inability to set ego aside.

Likewise, in Arrival, Professor Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams), is the only one able to set aside her ego and, miraculously, her fear. This film offers an excellent look at all aspects of communication. Since Louise Banks tries to communicate with aliens, she is forced to start at the very beginning of language, but even determining what is the beginning may seem confusing. In a very dramatic scene, she removes all protective gear and shows her bare hand to the aliens. This hand on the wall gives them a visual indication of one defining characteristic of humans. We use our hands for everything even down to our greetings. In presenting her bare-skinned hand, her face (without a helmet) and her eyes, she makes an offering. This gesture is simultaneously weak and strong. Weak because she has taken a chance on being misunderstood (in addition to the idea of alien contamination, etc.); strong because she boldly announces her ability and desire to communicate. And, of course, the aliens respond enthusiastically. This position recreates the very paradox of communication itself: how to listen and translate at the same time, how to be simultaneously open and closed (or weak and strong). 

These three examples illustrate some of the potential forces which can block or affect communication. In the first, Caius balances custom with his desire to actually speak to the people. Knowing that the senators would not approve, knowing that his abrupt change could be mistaken or disliked, he bravely took a chance. In Dostoevsky's hilarious scene, Miusov throws both custom and respect out the window on a whim. It appears that his fragile ego will not stand the idea that, in this spiritual world, even novices receive signs of great respect. Perhaps, he is intimidated by their spirituality. Perhaps he thinks all religion is hogwash. Either way, he instantly pulls back and refuses a proper introduction, which influences the next person's bow, and on down to the last member of the party, causing great anguish for the young Alyosha. Finally, Arrival depicts the courage necessary to step as far outside of oneself as possible in order to listen to another's language. To make meaning of these cues, is the next part of the story.

The simplest sentences can be bungled and confused between two people who speak the same language. These three examples exhibit the hilarious, intimidating, nervous or frightening experiences that may accompany communication. Our world depends upon understanding. These three examples substantiate why we might want to attend to the non-verbal aspects of communication in addition to the words.


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